‘Run out of town at 33,’ Danny Scheie returns to Santa Cruz for for a fitting Shakespearian farewell
Celebrated (and controversial) UCSC theater professor is getting the band back together for another run-through of ‘Comedy of Errors’ on April 23. Then he will continue to do what he loves most: act.
In a time long ago and far away, in a Santa Cruz of a previous century, a man named Danny Scheie would, too often for his comfort, find himself in hot water with the locals.
And I was to blame.
Scheie — pronounced SHAY, and certainly not SHY — was a theater director and actor, and, still in his early 30s, was the leader of Shakespeare Santa Cruz, at that time the most prominent theater company in Santa Cruz County and one of the most well-regarded theaters in Northern California.
Scheie is now 60, newly retired from the faculty of UC Santa Cruz, and poised to embark on a stroll down memory lane with a live online re-creation of Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors” on April 23, harkening back to perhaps his biggest triumph as a theater performer in Santa Cruz.
The “Comedy” play reading serves as a curtain call for a 30-plus-year career at UCSC. But for most of those 30 years, Scheie was all but invisible on the local theater scene.
The glaring exception: the years 1993-95, when Scheie ran things at SSC and brought his edgy, boundary-pushing style as a director to the company as a whole.
I was a young arts reporter at the Santa Cruz Sentinel at the time, and I saw every production in the Scheie years, including the ones he directed himself. Some of them rank among the most memorable productions in SSC’s long history, including a jaw-dropping take on Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus” and an unforgettable take on “The Tempest,” both set in the gorgeous and haunting Festival Glen in the redwoods of the UCSC campus.
Among those shows was 1993’s “Comedy of Errors,” in essence a revival of the Scheie-directed 1988 production of the same play. The set was an enormous wooden crate that the actors, stumbling in purposefully late to the show, would open like something Amazon left on the doorstep.
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The production was a triumph, and exactly the thing that Scheie and his friends will be remembering when they stage the live reading on April 23.
“It really launched my professional career,” said Scheie, remembering the original ’88 production. “And I think at one point, in a matinee, we packed, like, 900 people into the Glen, which never happened again.”
Scheie’s fearlessly outré style appealed to lots of Santa Cruz audiences, until it didn’t. In 1994, Scheie acted in a production of “Merry Wives of Windsor” as a kind of slumming transvestite Mistress Quickly and, in the early Clinton years, such a thing was bound to outrage some people, which it did. He also directed a production of “Merchant of Venice,” which many people consider an anti-Semitic play. Some local Jewish leaders protested forcefully.
Scheie’s response was artistic defiance. And I was his vehicle.
In stories that courted controversy, I quoted Scheie doubling down on “Merchant” as Shakespeare’s finest play and likening protestors against “Merchant” to Stalin. He told me of his theater company’s own board of directors, “They care more about baking casseroles and cookies than about art.”
“That toasted me, man,” said Scheie last week. “ It was an immature thing to say. But you looked so sweet when I said it to you.”
I got run out of town at 33, the same age that Hamlet got killed and Christ got crucified.
— Danny Scheie
What also “toasted” him was running a deficit. Though he wasn’t the only artistic director at Shakespeare Santa Cruz, he was the first. After three years, Scheie left the job.
“I got run out of town at 33,” he said, “the same age that Hamlet got killed and Christ got crucified.”
When I suggested that he had “ghosted” Santa Cruz after leaving the SSC job, he protested, “I didn’t really ghost Shakespeare Santa Cruz. Shakespeare Santa Cruz ran me up Highway One bloody and barefoot, with pitchforks.”
It’s a shame that the twin firestorms obscured Scheie’s finest work, the original and remade productions of “Comedy of Errors.”
“The whole idea was ingenious,” said Kevin Beggs, who served as Scheie’s assistant director on the original production of “Comedy.” Beggs is one of UCSC’s most successful alums. He’s now the chairman of the Lions Gate Television Group and one of the most powerful people in Hollywood.
Without changing any of Shakespeare’s language, Scheie envisioned his cast as a group of itinerant Depression-era actors who come across the crate and aren’t sure exactly which play they are supposed to be performing.
“The audience just ate it up,” remembered Beggs. “The whole preamble which, of course, was invented, of the actors arriving late to town, having not eaten and unsure of what roles they’re playing and the shtick they pull off for 20 minutes before the show even begins, it’s just genius. And you know, it’s reflective of our TV world. It’s like the opening credits of a TV show.”
Scheie’s “Comedy” was an instance of artistic boundary-pushing that generally delighted audiences and made Shakespeare more approachable. But the controversial moments of Scheie’s reign, particularly his in-drag portrayal of Mistress Quickly, drew all kinds of fire on the Sentinel’s op-ed and letters pages (the era’s social media) for “gay agenda” programming. Yet it would barely rank a mention in today’s world. In his gender-fluid portrayals, Scheie was in fact ahead of his time.
In fact, in recent years, Santa Cruz Shakespeare (a spin-off company from the now defunct SSC) adopted gender-blind casting in its productions.
At 60, Scheie has retired from academia. And after an online reunion at the “Comedy” reading with many of his old friends, he’s going to focus on his first love: acting. Scheie has, in fact, been acting in productions all around the world for years.
“I’m going to be super open to the opportunities that come,” he said. “I didn’t hustle that (SSC) artistic director job at all. It just kinda fell in my lap. I think it’s dumb for people in the theater to make plans. God laughs when you make plans. And if it all dries up, and ‘Girl, your shtick is played out,’ that’s OK too, because I’ve done so many plays. I don’t really have any regrets.”
Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors” will be performed in a live play-reading by Danny Scheie and many of those who were involved in the 1988 Shakespeare Santa Cruz production. The reading takes place April 23, 5:30 p.m. via Zoom. Proceeds will benefit the newly established Danny Scheie Scholarship Fund. For ticket information and to register, go here.